MORE THAN A ‘SECOND BANANA’…….

The name – Brian Patrick O’Brien – invokes connotations of a bearded, whisky-swigging Irish poet……or perhaps a loose-piselled Gaelic footballer.

Slot the pseudonym ‘Skimmy’ somewhere in there and seasoned locals will automatically recall a star sporting all-rounder of the sixties and seventies.

He’s got a fair idea of the derivation of the nickname. The kids at Glenrowan State School thrust it upon him, he says, probably because his old man, Des, was a dairy farmer, and it had something to do with skimmed milk.

So he’s been ‘Skimmy’ ever since………….
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He remembers riding the bike to and from the farm at Greta West to attend school and play tennis at Glenrowan on week-ends. His resultant disdain for cycling has continued to this day.

When the family moved in to Docker Street, Des, thinking young Brian would continue to work on his promising all-court game, invested in a membership of the Wangaratta Tennis Club for the eldest of his two sons.

But he never got around to treading the hallowed turf of Merriwa Park.

Instead, cricket and football were to become his passions…………..
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‘Skimmy’ became an ‘overnight success’ as a medium-pace bowler of quality, mid-way through his career, when he unleashed a couple of outstanding performances at Melbourne Country Week.

He’d long been typecast as the ‘second banana’ to more highly-rated quicks of his vintage; the sort of bloke who could tie things up, whilst the ‘big guns’ did the damage at the other end.

To be truthful, he’d been under-valued. A prolific wicket-taker in club cricket for years, his outswinger to the right- hander was lethal. It was just that he was a touch unfashionable.

On his first two trips to Melbourne, the selectors overlooked him. He copped it on the chin, he says, but admits it hurt deep-down.

When he finally ‘hit his straps’ in 1970, he did it with a bang, bowling unchanged in oppressive conditions on successive days.

Operating in tandem with his clubmate Robin Kneebone, he sent down 22 overs from the Railway-line End at Glenferrie Oval, to capture 4/58 against Maryborough.  Kneebone snared 4/60, as they restricted their opponents to an easily-accessible 9/127.

The following day, he completed another marathon performance, to snare 9/91 off 23 overs at Richmond’s Punt Road Oval. Central Gippsland ( 203 ), just failed to overhaul Wangaratta’s 5/222.

It remains the only Country Week ‘9-for’ by a Wangaratta bowler. ‘Skimmy’ had finally won the respect of the wider cricket public………..
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His entry to cricket was low-key. The first three years were spent with Housing Commission in the Social competition, alongside good friend Pat Heffernan and such erstwhile characters of the Sunday game as Rob McCullough, ‘Lofty’ Bracken and Bernie Mullins.

Little wonder that an impressionable lad, in his mid-teens, learned plenty, both on and off the field. Moving into the WDCA, he spent time with both Wangaratta and Rovers, before settling on United.

It was a stroke of fortune for both parties. The fledgling club was on the rise – destined to dominate local cricket for more than a decade. And he was to play a key role in its run of success.

In WDCA history, only the Corowa sides of the late-‘80’s and nineties, can rival this United unit for its depth and overall talent. At one stage, eight of their players were walk-up starts in Wangaratta’s representative teams.

‘Skimmy’ played in six premierships in his first eight seasons – and won the competition bowling average in four of them.

Nagging accuracy, consistent pace – and that hooping swing – made him a difficult proposition.

He went to Melbourne to represent the Victorian Postal Institute against the VRI once, he says, and caught the eye of one of the coaches with his ability to ‘move the cherry’.

“But can you control it, lad,” the coach asked. After half an hour  in the nets, into a difficult breeze, he conceded: “You’ve got one of the most crucial parts of a fast bowler’s armoury.”

A couple of his most memorable efforts in WDCA Finals were produced with the willow. He dragged United from a precarious 9/125 to a more comfortable 205 in 1968/69, thanks to his knock of 60, and a last-wicket stand of 65 with Geoff Kneebone.

Then, for good measure, he sent down 18 overs, to capture 3/44, backing up Robin Kneebone’s 6/68, to ensure victory.

A painstaking innings of 80 in the decider against Magpies the following year, along with figures of  3/25, further underlined his value as an all-rounder in this feared United machine……..
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Versatility was the hallmark of ‘Skimmy’s’ footy career. His coaches had the luxury of flinging him around the ground, aware that he’d adapt to any role.

Centrals was his Junior League club. Having  commenced a Telecom Technician’s course in Melbourne in 1959 , he spent half a season with South Yarra YCW. After completing his commitments with Centrals  the following year, he slotted straight into the Rovers Reserves line-up, being selected for the first of his 6 Grand Final appearances with the Hawks.

‘Skimmy’ broke into the senior side in 1961 and was to become a permanent fixture for the next decade . At a little over 6’1” and handily-proportioned, he had pace, and all the skills – bar one.

Surprisingly, he never attempted to kick with his left foot, instead, mastering a side-ways right-footer, which got him out of trouble and was nearly always effective.

He began as a full back, but after receiving a ‘touch-up’ from Magpie ‘Bushy’ Constable one day, was replaced by burly Teddy Pearse, and shunted to the back pocket. They became a formidable combination in the last line.

‘Skimmy’ was one of the youthful brigade who responded to the inspirational coaching of Ken Boyd, who succeeded Bobby Rose in 1963.

Within a year, the Hawks were playing an aggressive, spirited brand of footy which had them ranked as hot flag favourites mid-way through 1964.

But first they had to overcome a worrying slump in form, then a Wangaratta side which had hit top form at the business end of the season. They broke the shackles in a dominant third quarter, to defeat the Pies by 25 points in the Grand Final.

They repeated the dose the following year, this time outlasting the Pies at Martin Park. An O’Brien goal late in the final term had seemingly iced the game, but Wang kept coming and fell short by just three points in a riveting clash.

‘Skimmy’s’ best season with the Hawks came in 1967, when he polled 10 votes in the Morris Medal, playing principally as a winger or centreman. The season, however, ended in Grand Final disappointment, as did his final full year as a player – 1970.

He was appointed coach at Chiltern in 1971 and admits there were some misgivings.
“Especially early on, when I had a yarn to an old Chiltern stalwart, Donny Stephenson. He said: ‘Skim, being an outsider, it might take a while for the players to accept you. I think you’ll probably have to win ‘em over.’ “

“But everyone was great. I just set down one rule: ‘No grog in the pub after Tuesday night.’”

“Old Bill Cassidy, the Chairman of Selectors,  came to me after training one night and took me aside: ‘A couple of the boys have been spotted down at the Grapevine Hotel.’”

“So I walked into the Bar and nabbed ‘em. You could have hung buckets off their eyes, they were that surprised. I said: ‘All right, I’ll have one with ya and then, on your way. And remember, I’m going to run shit out of you at training next week.’”

Chiltern went on to meet Milawa in a Grand Final that had everything. The Swans, with stars Jock and Rowdy Lappin turning it on, regained the lead twice in the final term, to defeat the gallant Demons by six points.

There was no-one more relieved than ‘Skimmy’, that Chiltern had hung on. He’d  played a solid game at full back, but a late Milawa goal – and a drawn game- would have thrown his planned wedding to Marlene the following week into chaos.

So he finished his O & K sojourn with a perfect record.

“They were great people and we made long-lasting friends in our time there. But I was missing the Rovers. I decided to head back home.”

He played just three games in Brown and Gold the next season, before his hamstring gave way.

After 174 senior games with the Hawks, his playing career was over.

He spent three years on the committee, and coached the Reserves into a Grand Final in 1975, before the lure of the Golf course saw this staunchest of Rovers clubmen end his time at the City Oval.

Since then, belting the white ball around has been ‘Skimmy’s’ solitary sporting pursuit. “I don’t hit ‘em as well as I used to, but the game still gets me in,” he says…………..

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